Short Stories

Short story: “Countdown”

Standing in line in front of a store all night is like coming off an international flight and dragging your arse through customs: they turn you inside out and scan your clothes off your back while you’re too tired to care. So when the clerk wanted me to swab the inside of my cheek ‘to complete the personal registration process of your phone’, I didn’t think twice. Anything to take my new baby home.

My sister doesn’t get it. She yells at me for living behind a screen, but she doesn’t realise that my entire life is online. I rarely meet people face to face. I can’t. My friends and family live on the far side of the country, if not the far side of the globe, and my work doesn’t involve seeing clients or suppliers. I mean, I’m a statistics analyst for an insurance company. A data cruncher. The only people I need to speak to are my colleagues, and since they aren’t always in the same city, we skype. So for me, having the latest smartphone with the fastest processor to run cutting-edge apps is not a luxury. It’s essential. And I must say I’m pretty pleased with this new model.

Half the fun of a new phone is trying out all the pre-installed goodies, and man, the SLT5000 doesn’t disappoint! The graphics of the GPS app are astonishing. The social media interfaces are sleek as hell, and it has no problem whatsoever with the new G5 bandwidth system that was launched a few months ago. This isn’t a mobile phone or even a smartphone anymore. It’s a legit handheld computer! If I adjust the sensitivity of the touchscreen keys to match my admittedly chubby fingers, it might even make my laptop obsolete. Ha!

The only thing I can’t figure out is the timer at the top of my screen, next to the network indicator. It’s not a step counter, because it counts down. It’s not a battery life calculation, because while this phone is good, I doubt its battery charge will last a year and a half.

I try tapping the numbers, but that only brings up an empty checkbox and a list of my basic info, like my full name, date of birth, age, marital status, that sort of thing. Probably my contract details. But why the timer? Maybe the contract. For how long did I sign up, anyway? I can’t remember. No matter. These new generation phones are strong, but not indestructible. I’ll find out about the contract’s expiry date when this baby first needs repairs.

For the next few weeks, I ignore the timer and use the phone for what it was designed: my work email, posting photos and tweets, scrolling Facebook, calling my sis, ordering take-out on the fly. The usual.

Two months later, long after the SLT5000 has earned its first scratches, that dumb timer stops being background noise. At a glance I notice that the counter is at 5 months, 4 days and a bit when I open my browser to order pizza. After placing my order and closing the browser, the timer flashes red and changes: 4 months, 27 days, 13 hours, 56 minutes, 3 seconds.

A glitch? Nah, phone’s too new to glitch. I must have remembered it wrong.

The next morning: big news. The merger of my company and our closest competitor is a fact, and now the data sets needs to be reconciled. That means long days for me and my colleagues. Long days, longer nights, and nothing but Coke, fast food and my computer screen for company.

Three weeks later, around 2 am, I’m hunched over a huge pile of nasi and foe yong hai. Maybe I should take a holiday after this is done. Go lie on a beach somewhere. I can just picture that when my phone bleeps. Sweet-and-sour sauce dripping from my chin, I swipe a greasy thumb over the screen to read the email. As the screen lights up, I see the timer in the corner.

6 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes, 12 seconds. 11. 10. 9…

It can’t be counting down time, then. But if not time, what else?

I wipe my hands on my shirt and tap the timer again. The pop-up appears, stating the same personal info as before. And that checkbox. When I touch it, the pop-up announces that it’s ‘recalculating averages’. Then a scroll bar appears next to the now ticked checkbox. I give it a swipe. The text moves, revealing more lines.

Lifestyle averages
Steps/day: 500
Calorie intake/day: 3600
Heartrate: 87 bpm
Lifestyle risk assessment
Fall: 2,7%
Traffic accident – car: 0,003%
Traffic accident – airplane: 0,000007%
Suicide: 0,09%
Health risk assessment
Cardiovascular disease (1-2 yrs): 96,6%
Diabetes Type II (1-2 yrs): 72% (genetic weakness)
Colon cancer (1-2 yrs): 5,8% (genetic weakness)

“What? No!”

My arm stops short of throwing the phone against the wall. Impossible! How can this stupid phone know—?

It’s a hoax. A gag app. I fire up my laptop and type a search query into my laptop’s browser. This app was on my phone when I bought it. It must have been on that of everyone else…

It is. Other people are posting screen caps of their counters. Some timers have decades to go, some only days. People say their timers change sometimes, like mine did. One woman claims that hers added 13 years after she had a by-pass surgery.

I don’t believe it. I’m an insurance data analyst, for crying out loud! If nothing else, I know how insanely difficult it is to calculate the chance of someone becoming sick or permanently disabled, never mind the chance of them dying on a specific day and time.

Other sites share the scare stories. About teenagers who watched their counter tick away the last seconds, and then killed themselves, terrified and hyped up about what was going to happen next. Gullible and unstable kids. And this one story about a healthy guy who got run over by a truck, supposedly just as his counter sprung to 00:00, must be a new urban legend.

It’s a hoax. It has to be. Sure I carry my phone around with me at all times. Sure I use it for personal emails, tax and health care stuff, and sure I order my meals and groceries on it, but that’s no basis for statistics. You’d need thousands upon thousands of such data points from every user to compare and calculate and–

No. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t! I mean, isn’t there a law against gathering this much user information? Unless I gave permission, they can’t—

The cheek swab, the forms. I never even bothered to disable the app! That timer is nothing but a front, a gimmick, I’m sure of it, but Lord knows what data this thing has gathered since I got it, never mind what they’ve been using it for.

Next to the plate of cooling rice, my SLT5000 pings. Out of habit, an urge stronger than myself, I pick it up to check the message I’ve just received:

Desmond Timothy Baker, thank you for activating you daily Life-Timer® reminder service.

I dismiss the message, but immediately a new pop-up fills the screen.  

Desmond Timothy Baker, this is your daily Life-Timer® reminder. You currently have 6 days, 7 hours, 2 minutes and 30 seconds to live. Have a nice day.

The End

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